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Jeff Viehmeyer takes a custom approach to business

June 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Management, Marine, Perspective

Jeff Viehmeyer balances quality, cost and time in a customized approach to customer satisfaction.

“Excessive perfectionism can strangle success. Every project has a correct balance between quality, cost and time—and you have to find the balance between them,” says Jeff Viehmeyer, owner of Alameda Canvas & Coverings in Alameda, Calif. “And if you can’t find out what’s important to the customer, you can’t balance the equation.” It’s the pursuit of that equation that has led Viehmeyer to adopt a “good, better, best” approach to manufacturing marine canvas products for his customers—a pursuit that rests on communication and creative critical thinking

Viehmeyer is a fourth generation member of a marine-oriented, creative family. His father was an aerospace engineer who raced sailboats and invented advanced products for racing sailboats. His grandfather was manager of Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Sparrows Point, Md., and his great grandfather built square riggers. So it’s not surprising that when Viehmeyer decided to make a change from his 25-year career as a technology manager and consultant, he gravitated to a marine-based business.

“I was getting tired of the direction technology was going—it wasn’t fun anymore,” he says. “After several particularly stressful periods of buyouts and such, I decided to take advantage of downsizing to start my own business doing something I really liked. And no matter what else was going on in my life, I’d always been around the water and working on boats.”

Customer consultation

Although Viehmeyer’s passion for all things boat-related is what drew him to starting Alameda Canvas & Coverings, his consulting experience has been foundational to his success in the industry. “My approach to this business is very consultative,” he says. “So when customers come in with a concept, or a problem they want to solve, we start talking about ways we can achieve their goals.”

Viehmeyer interviews the customer regarding their expectations, taking care to ask questions intended to unearth hidden expectations that might undermine customer satisfaction. He asks about the customer’s priorities, how they use their boat (or ship or vessel), where it goes, what it does, whether aesthetics or durability takes precedence, and what their needs are regarding delivery times. Then they discuss materials’ pros and cons, including fabrics, threads and window materials. “I find that very few customers are just plain difficult—most often I find that people are just not clear on the choices or trade-offs, and why,” he says. “I have a saying in the shop: The knowledgeable customer is our best customer.”

Good enough

The customer’s priorities correlate directly with the way Viehmeyer finishes the project. “Sometimes you can embellish a product and complete things beyond the point where a customer cares or would even notice,” he says. “And that can drastically affect your delivery times and cost.” In order to produce high quality products that meet the customer’s needs, he adopted the “good, better, best” approach from a combination of practical observation, talking with customers about what they wanted, as well as previous business experience.

“It’s possible to work faster and more economically without hurting the quality of the job if you know what’s important to your customer,” Viehmeyer says. “To fixate on product perfection at the expense of getting it to the customer at the time required, for a reasonable price, can cause your business to fail. Sometimes ‘good enough’ really is good enough.”

Patterns for efficiency

Besides knowing what’s important to your customer, Viehmeyer focuses on being able to deliver the product in the most efficient way possible, and for that he draws on his background in industrial engineering. “Industrial engineering is all about doing things efficiently and effectively,” he says. “It’s about asking yourself questions like: How are people really making things on the plant floor? What does the supply chain look like? How is the warehouse laid out? What kind of shipping patterns are there? You’re always looking for patterns and efficiencies.”

Viehmeyer’s shop is designed with a flexible layout; every piece of equipment is on wheels so they can be rolled around to different configurations. “That way we’re not always running around giant tables for projects that don’t require it,” he says. Viehmeyer will also buy two or three of the same piece of equipment just to eliminate steps in the shop. “I did a calculation one time,” he says. “If you save 10 minutes a day for a work year at a shop labor rate of $60 per hour, that results in $2,500 additional profit. The little things add up.”

Shop scheduling is also an area in which Viehmeyer streamlines the production process. When possible he’ll schedule a number of jobs to be in progress simultaneously to take advantage of similar machine setups, similar types of materials, or working in the marina with multiple projects at the same dock. “We’ll also stay in close communication with our customers so that we’ll know if something has changed,” he says. “It may be the weather or something else in their plans and now what was a priority in three days, they don’t really need for 10 days—and that affects the scheduling.”

Sometimes maintaining efficiency means saying no to a customer’s request. “I don’t like saying no, but I know I’ve got to focus on what we do well at our shop,” Viehmeyer says. “If we’re looking at a job that will take us two days to do and there won’t be much profit in it and we’ve got other jobs waiting that are going to make the week’s profits, I’ve got to say no.” In those cases he’ll make suggestions and recommendations to help them get their needs met elsewhere—because for Viehmeyer, the relationship with the customer is what the rest of his business’s success rests on.

“We’re in the Bay area, which has a lot of very bright people doing precise and demanding work every day,” Viehmeyer says. “These are people who might work with nuclear physics, or write world-class software. They bring that same high level of expectation to work that’s done on their boats. We try to meet those expectations while helping them take pleasure in the process.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine.

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